“Leeches on the public purse.”
“Cowards for fleeing your own country, rather than staying to rebuild.”
These frequently voiced comments represent just some of the outbursts forcibly displaced people are exposed to daily in the UK. At JRS UK, we aim to counter this indifference by opening the door with kindness. JRS UK has always had a special ministry to forcibly displaced people, particularly those who are held in immigration detention or have been made destitute by the asylum-seeking process. Today, they are among the most vulnerable group in the country, an intended target of government policies that work to create a hostile environment geared at making them feel unwelcome, and challenging their ability to persevere.
Asylum seekers come to the UK with the hope of at least regaining a sense of stability. They might have fled violence, suffered tremendous loss, or left behind all that is familiar to arrive on our shores. But once they arrive, many find difficulty accessing legal assistance, and the threat of not being able to remain in the country at all. One of our refugee friends recently described the passage to legal recognition as a “world of total confusion.” It is difficult for them to survive, let alone flourish, in a government-led culture of discouragement and hostility.
When a person claims asylum in the UK, many are at first “dispersed” to various areas of the country, and provided with a minimal subsistence allowance while their initial claim is assessed. Once a decision has been made, several things can happen: if the decision is positive, they are granted international protection and gain access to jobs and benefits. If they are refused, they often re-enter into legal limbo, and they may have to start the asylum process again – eligibility for government assistance becomes more complex, and varies from person to person. The worst scenario is they may not be allowed to appeal the decision at all.
For those whose assistance has been removed, they become utterly destitute, with no access to the job market, no permission to rent accommodation, and no ability to support themselves. It is at this stage that many will seek support from JRS UK. Put yourself for a moment in this person’s place: being unable to afford food or clothing, to top up your mobile phone, speak to your family, or make necessary travel to see your lawyer. This kind of powerlessness can inevitably lead to a loss of dignity.
Many of the asylum seekers we accompany spend their days moving from one charity to another, seeking help for their legal claim, trying to find hot food and a warm place, and surviving on second hand clothing and other handouts. Their daily interactions are about meeting chronic, basic needs through a series of transnational relationships. In contrast, JRS UK creates communities of hospitality and works to encourage a sense of self-respect and resilience. The JRS UK Day Centre is the hub of our work with destitute asylum seekers in greater London. While the UK government is wrenching up the drawbridge, JRS UK continues to welcome the stranger in a warm and inviting environment where each person and their beliefs is respected.
Alongside a hot meal and monthly toiletry packs, we provide a weekly travel grant that enables visits to the Day Centre itself, and to other services throughout the week. Often, this small cash grant is more than monetary; it can be an effective means to physically access justice, by allowing our beneficiaries to meet with their lawyer – to prepare for an appeal hearing or to prepare further submissions. The availability of this travel grant may be the reason that destitute asylum seekers initially seek JRS’s assistance. But in my experience, the quiet, unobtrusive accompaniment and support of JRS UK staff and volunteers is what forms trusting relationships. We offer our refugee friends one-to-one advice and provide them with vital information. More simply, an amicable chat over a hot cup of tea and a biscuit or two, reinforces the humanity of this diverse community, which is made up of asylum seekers and refugees hailing from Algeria, Burundi, Chechnya, Congo, DRC, Eritrea, Georgia, Iraq, Jamaica, Kenya, Liberia, Mongolia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe, to name but a few.
The JRS UK Day Centre offers a range of facilitated group activities. The recreations and groups help to unearth and develop skills and talents, and encourage mutual sharing and support between people of varied backgrounds. One popular activity is a series of regular drama workshops that have been successful in encouraging members of the community to express themselves and their experiences in a creative manner. Each Day Centre begins with a meeting and briefing between volunteers and staff, where we discuss the community’s updates: we celebrate when our refugee friends have shared good news—when children have passed their exams, appeal hearings have been successful, or when members of the community have enjoyed a photography workshop, etc. We are also there to console them in their setbacks and frustrations.
In June, one of our refugee friends whom I have come to know well was granted refugee status. During his time with us, he has become interested in advocacy policies – he often encourages others to better understand their rights as asylum seekers. After struggling with the courts for 14 years, he now has a chance for a better life. I hope this may be a reality for many more of our refugee friends.
As the hostile environment gets tougher and more ingrained into government policy, JRS UK remains steadfast in the mission that Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ gave us: “to bring at least some relief to such a tragic situation.”
This article was originally published in Servir – the quarterly magazine published by JRS International on issues affecting refugees and forcibly displaced persons. You can download the full issue on the JRS International website.